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Posts Tagged ‘POV’

Fall Cleaning

Spring is the traditional time to clean, of course, but this year I am cleaning in autumn. Not my house, although that could probably use it too, but a more general airing of my life. It feels like a nice time for it, with the new school year fully in swing and the weather turning cooler.

Some of my fall cleaning is about maintenance. I finally went in for a physical and got my flu shot. I procrastinated on this so long last year that it didn’t end up happening. I got my teeth cleaned. I finally got a hair cut. I’m planning to go buy new socks for the winter, and then remove all my old socks with holes in them from my drawer. (I expect there to be a not small number of those.)

A lot of my fall cleaning is about taking space. A friend of mine recently asked when the last time was that I felt stress-free, and I couldn’t think of an answer. I’d already been taking the time and space I needed to relax during the last few weeks, but this only increased my resolve.

It’s not that I am able to avoid all stress right now–I wish!–but now that I’m not being constantly bombarded with urgent matters, I can breathe and place some limitations on what stress I’m allowing into my life. A lot of that has more to do with my outlook and what I’m willing to emotionally take on than with anything happening outside of myself. And some of it has to do with observing my own experience and being okay with it instead of existing constantly under a harsh eye of judgment.

I am also on the look out for new perspective. Some of this comes from giving myself permission to take time to think through things. Some of this comes from discussing things with other people and listening to their thoughts. And some of this comes from being open to what is new and different.

Quality Nala time!

Quality Nala time! Photo by Yvette Ono.

And I am doing things that I find nurturing. This involves lots of Nala time and the occasional pumpkin spice chai. It involves giving and receiving support from friends and using this time to draw closer. It involves quiet time and honesty and toast and walks to soak up the sunshine. It involves sleeping late and soaking in the hot tub and paying attention to what sounds good in the moment.

Are you doing any fall cleaning this year? What does it mean to you?

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Seth Godin said something wise the other day:

“The hardest way to disagree with someone is to come to understand that they see the world differently than we do, to acknowledge that they have a different worldview, something baked in long before they ever encountered this situation.”

His suggestion for dealing with this kind of disagreement? To stop assuming the other person is ignorant or stupid or doesn’t get it, and instead focus on telling compelling stories. Stories, I’m assuming, that encourage empathy, that maybe crack open the door to give a glimpse of another worldview in a sympathetic way.

We’re telling stories all the time in our culture. We tell stories about the running of our government (politics). We tell stories to convince each other to buy something (advertising). We tell stories about how we do our jobs (annual reviews). We tell stories about how to live life (philosophy, child-rearing, religion). We tell stories about how the world works (mythology, pop science).

Photo Credit: kygp via Compfight cc

I was thinking about a question on OkCupid asking whether you have a problem with racist jokes. My answer was yes, I do; but plenty of people answer that racist jokes aren’t a big deal. I’ve never been a big fan of racist jokes; I don’t usually find them terribly funny. However, I might have once agreed that maybe they weren’t a big deal.

But then I read a lot of stories that showed me how racist jokes can cause harm, how they perpetuate the status quo of privilege and racism, and how they tangibly affect real people. And because of those stories and the empathy they caused me to feel, I notice these jokes and I feel uncomfortable. And yes, I do have a problem with them. My worldview changed. So now for me, those jokes ARE a big deal.

A worldview doesn’t always need to change dramatically. Sometimes it’s enough to recognize other experiences, even if you’ve never had them yourself. Even if you don’t agree. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever agree. The respect of recognition goes a long way to allowing a dialogue to take place.

The bedrock of empathy is the idea that however different our worldviews may be, we are all human beings. We all suffer, and we all want to be loved. Sometimes stories are the key to reminding each other of this truth.

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Thank goodness for Jonathan Carroll and his Facebook page, because whenever my brain is feeling slow, I take a look at what he has posted recently to get my thoughts flowing again. Recently he shared this quotation:

People will kill you over time, and how they’ll kill you is with tiny, harmless phrases, like “be realistic.” – Dylan Moran

This makes me think about how subtle an influence a person can have on us. So subtle, in fact, that often no one in the room is conscious of what’s happening. A comment here, a snort there, and a little body language thrown in for good measure, and our thoughts and emotions can be deeply affected:

“I’m not good enough.”

“Maybe I’m being stupid.”

“My career/life goals aren’t important/valid/valuable.”

It’s so easy to diminish, to de-motivate, to plant the seeds of doubt, to make someone feel lesser. It’s so easy to neglect to listen to what other people have to say in favor of listening to ourselves. It’s so easy to sting someone without even thinking about what we are saying.

As a writer, I believe that words matter, perhaps more than most. The written word matters, and the spoken word matters. Body language, tone of voice, and mannerisms matter, all contributing to the overall message that someone is communicating.

Because I think words matter, I pay a lot of attention. I listen. I think about what people say to me. I think not only about the words used, but about the manner of their delivery, the context, and other circumstances that are relevant.

For many years, I internally chided myself for my “sensitivity.” But now I recognize what a gift it can be. Because if I’m paying attention, then I can notice more of those small messages, many of them negative, that I receive from other people. And then I can work to counter them and lessen their impact.

Words matter. (Photo Credit: felipe_gabaldon via Compfight cc)

That’s why choosing carefully the people with whom we spend a lot of time is so important. Not only will they be affecting the activities we participate in, the subjects we talk about, and even the amount of food we eat, but they will be sending subtle unconscious messages that have a real impact (potentially either positive or negative) on our moods, our world views, our self esteem, and what we think is possible for ourselves. The more we notice, the more we can make deliberate decisions about whether to spend time with people who make us feel awesome, energized, and supported for being who we are, or whether to spend time with people who make us feel tired, drained, ignored, and not enough. The choice is clear, but only if we are able to track what’s going on.

Words matter. Our environment matters. The choice to be kind matters.

What tiny, harmless phrase have you taken to heart lately? What would you rather hear?

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Today I have a story to tell you that takes place in India. Now, I’ve never been to India, partially because I tend to avoid places where catching malaria is an option and partially because of the stories my friends have told me. But happily, I have friends through whom I can live vicariously. And their stories, besides being amusing, serve to provide me with a healthy dose of perspective.

Now imagine, if you will, a thriving Indian town up in the Himalayas. It’s so hot and dusty that the shopkeepers throw cups of water on the dirt in front of their stores so there will be less dust. My friend was wandering in the middle of town when she suddenly felt violently ill (something that happens frequently to Westerners in India, from all accounts).

My friend had a dilemma. Her lodgings were on the outskirts of town, and there was no way she was going to get there in time. But there weren’t any public bathrooms for her to use either. So she began to scout out a likely location on the public streets to take care of business. She found a likely alcove guarded by a cow, so she squatted down there and was very sick. She told me the cow stared at her the entire time, and what was particularly amusing to her was that she was creating a cow patty of her own.

And then she realized she didn’t have any toilet paper.

Photo Credit: Mikelo via Compfight cc

My friend went back to her lodgings and told her partner what had happened. He said, “You think that’s bad? Listen what happened to me.” He proceeded to tell her a story of how he was sick during a ten-hour bus ride in India. The bus wouldn’t stop, so he was sick in his pants every two hours for the entire trip.

I don’t believe in problem comparing, but I do think these stories help us calibrate our perceptions of the world and gain a different perspective on our lives. They illustrate the twin truths that there is always someone who has it worse and that, even so, sometimes that doesn’t matter very much. Was being sick for ten hours on a bus worse than being sick out on the public street? Perhaps, and yet at a certain level, suffering is suffering.

These stories also make me feel extremely grateful for the comforts I enjoy. It’s so easy to take the things to which we are accustomed for granted, whether that be available restrooms, toilet paper, or food and water that doesn’t make us constantly ill. I’m glad I live somewhere clean with so much modern infrastructure. I’m glad I have hot water more than a few hours a day.

Finally, they highlight our lack of control over life. Sometimes things go wrong and we have to cope with it the best we can. And sometimes that means hiding in an alcove with a curious cow.

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You know how people say that as you get older, you stop changing? They see the teens and early twenties as this turbulent time as you explore and establish who you are, and then your identity is set, and you are who you are.

This idea of selfhood has always disturbed me. I have never wanted to become set. I enjoy playing with identity, whether it is through writing characters, wearing clothes and costumes, playing RPGs, or acting on the stage. I like thinking about why I do what I do, and why people in general do what they do, and what influence society and families and past experience has on our emotions and decisions and worldviews.

But recently (and by recently, I mean ten minutes ago), I realized my own relationship with identity is more complex than that. Because I do believe there is an unchanging core of myself, of Amyness, that has existed as far back as I have memory. Just as I can look at old photographs of myself and see my current face in the chubby cheeks of two-year-old Amy, in the gawkiness of nine-year-old Amy, behind the huge glasses of teenaged Amy, so I can feel an ongoing sense of self that has persisted throughout my lifetime.

Yes, the title of this post might be a thinly veiled excuse for a cute dog photo.

Yes, the title of this post might be a thinly veiled excuse for a cute dog photo.

My friend Rahul wrote in one of his excellent essays: “I wonder if individuality is something that deepens in you when you start to live purposefully.” To come at the same idea from a slightly different direction, I think that through life, we can grow in ways that bring out and express our own individuality with greater strength and clarity. And these changes that we can make that allow ourselves to shine out ever brighter, these changes are what I am personally committed to and what I hope will never stop, no matter how old I become.

I have spent the last few years completely dedicated to change. Some of that evolution has been documented here on the blog, most explicitly through my backbone project. What I realize, though, is that I haven’t been changing the core of who I am. That sense of self is my foundation, the part that by never changing allows me to have the strength to challenge myself and my assumptions and make so many other changes. What I have been changing are my attitudes, my behaviors, my reactions, my understanding, and my choices. I have the freedom to change so much because ultimately, I am already so grounded in who Amy is that my core identity can survive through any changes I care to make.

And through all this change, I see the juxtaposition that so many of us struggle with. On the one hand, we want to be the same. We want understanding and empathy and sympathy, we want people to like the same things we like, we want to have that sense of connection that can come from sharing. But simultaneously, we want to be different. We want to rebel, we want to express our individuality, we want to be SPECIAL. And there is a push and pull created between these two opposing desires.

Only they’re not opposing at all. We can be both ordinary and special. We are all the same in some really basic ways. But each of us also has that core of identity that makes us who we are, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, and each core varies ever so slightly from every other core. And each of us has our own slightly different point of view as we travel through life. And this different selfhood and different perspective makes us special even as we are awash in sameness. In a similar way, we can be changing like mad even as we’re always ourselves.

Isn’t it neat the way that works out?

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I’ll let you in on a little secret. We who carry with us the legacy of a troubled childhood sometimes talk about the people who don’t. You know, the ones who had fairly normal childhoods with just a sprinkling of trauma and have gone on to become well-adjusted adults without years of therapy or going on a spiritual quest in India or having a near-death experience.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I think we attract and are attracted by people who have similar world views to our own. And we are also heavily influenced by the five people we spend the most time with (or three, or ten, but you get the idea). So I have a lot of investment in the idea of spending time with emotionally healthy people, including those who had pretty happy childhoods.

But I’ve noticed a theme in recent conversations about these people. Words like “boring” and “not very deep” tend to come up. And when I pushed a little harder, a friend said, “What I really want is someone who will understand. And people who are happy and healthy won’t be able to understand.”

We get so excited when we find someone who “understands,” and we look with eagerness for our commonalities. “Wow, you’re a Disneyland person? I’m a Disneyland person too!” or “Your favorite book is my favorite book!” or “We both know this obscure fact about this obscure interest!” And abracadabra, instant bonding. We do the same thing with tragedy. There is no time when people will be more likely to share stories of everyone they’ve known who has ever died than when you are grieving yourself.

But I question the whole idea of understanding. Can anyone else ever truly understand what it is to be me, and what it means to have my experiences? We can build up models of each other, sure, and keep adding details for ever-increasing accuracy, but even then we are not understanding so much as empathizing. We can use our imaginations to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, but we can never truly know what those shoes feel like.

We see this in good writing. It’s why choosing the point of view character(s) is so critical. The story completely changes based on who is telling it, even if most of the events and even scenes are the same. I see this when I talk to my sister. We both lived through many of the same formative events, and yet today when we talk about it, it’s vividly clear that we had completely different experiences. The details we remember are different, and our impressions of each other from that time are often inaccurate. We think we understand, and yet sometimes that false impression has actually kept us farther apart.

Photo Credit: Ma Gali via Compfight cc

Understanding is overrated. What I’m interested in and what I want for myself is empathy. And empathy, and the personal depth and wisdom that having empathy requires, can be given regardless of childhood experience. The whole point of empathy is the cognizance that you can’t completely understand, even if you’ve had similar experiences; that you aren’t the other person and the whole sum of past and present, personality and passions, fears and flaws that makes them who they are. And in spite of that, in spite of the impossibility of understanding, you’re willing to sit with them and listen to them and try to hold as much as them as possible in your mind so you can see who they are, even though it’s sometimes so hard to leave yourself out of that picture. And yet somehow, even though it sounds hard and complicated, many of us are surprisingly good at being empathetic.

I don’t understand you, not really. And you don’t understand me. We come from different places, and we live in different worlds. But we can still find a way to know each other.

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This weekend, one of my closest friends had a heart attack. He spent most of the day Tuesday in surgery. On Wednesday, soon before I sat down to type this, he started breathing on his own again. The surgery went well, I think.

I am so relieved and grateful.

My "pretty princess" nails in support of Ferrett.

My “pretty princess” nails in support of Ferrett.

I originally became friends with Ferrett because of this blog, and in fact, he is the single person who has had the most influence on it. I came up with the idea of the Backbone Project because of his blogging advice, and in characteristic Ferrett fashion, he threw himself behind my idea with enthusiasm and support. And so we became friends.

Over time, we became better friends. And he was the first one who was there when life began to crumble apart. He was the one I could show the cracks and imperfections, the confusion and the doubt. He understood what I was trying to do, and he believed in my ability to do it, even when I couldn’t believe in it myself.

We were talking about what to do when we falter on Tuesday. If you’re lucky enough, having a friend who believes in you with all his heart can be a powerful thing indeed. And Ferrett has one of the biggest and most generous hearts of anyone I’ve met.

He’s also taught me what it means to be a friend. In a healthy, supportive, and non-people pleaser kind of way.

Through these last few days, when I’ve been mentally in a hospital in Cleveland even though I couldn’t be there physically, I’ve been reminded quite strongly of what’s important to me. I’m always big on priorities, of course, but there’s nothing like a life-or-death kind of event to give you a little extra kick and provide some perspective.

I’m in a liminal space right now, and I don’t like it. I mean, it has its advantages and interesting parts, and it is completely necessary, but it’s a hard place for me to stay for an extended period of time. But I realize that even in this space, I can and am focusing on the things that matter to me: the people I care about (and one very adorable little dog); my writing and creative work; maintaining and improving myself (physically, mentally, and emotionally); experiencing joy and wonder in the world around me.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t know what I want. But that is not actually true at all. I know exactly what I want. I just don’t always know the form it will take or the balance it will require.

Ferrett wrote a post for his blog the day before his surgery. He said: “There is a small chance that these will be the last words I ever write on this blog.  And if they are… let them be thanks and love.”

It doesn’t look like those will be his last words on the blog, thank goodness. But if they had been, they would have been very fine last words indeed.

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I’ve been trying to think of what other 2012 life lesson I should write about today. It’s problematic because I feel like I’ve learned so much, and I don’t want to choose only one thing. So I’m going to bypass this problem by making a list (and you all know how much I love lists).

Things I Have Learned in 2012:

  1. Being assertive is important.
  2. Ditto being open and authentic.
  3. I know how to make a mean cranberry sauce.
  4. Setting boundaries means I have more energy for being social.
  5. Chicago has a world-class art museum. I want to go back.
  6. Hurricanes can hit when you least expect them.
  7. First person point of view has a lot of nuances that are fun to play with. So do unreliable narrators. These two things are related.
  8. I am happier when I make my writing a top priority. I also accomplish a lot more.
  9. When you are confident, you hold your body differently. When you hold your body differently, you become more confident.
  10. Nobody is perfect. (This is quite a relief for all concerned.)
  11. Starbucks serves their pumpkin spice chai lattes all year round. Although I’ve yet to test this.
  12. People say wise things all the time if you pay attention.
  13. It doesn’t actually rain every day in Seattle.
  14. There is such a thing as too nice.
  15. Too much stress, and I’m in pain and/or sick.
  16. I’m better at making hard decisions than I give myself credit for.
  17. Life really is stranger than most fiction. Things happen that you could never get away with putting in a story.
  18. It’s okay to ask for help.
  19. New Year resolutions can sometimes be a very good idea.
  20. I like pie. (All right, I already knew this one.)
  21. Feeling an urgent need to succeed is something that happens at the beginning of the journey to mastery. Somewhere in the middle of the journey, I chill out and can focus more on the actual work.
  22. No matter how many books I have to read, I can always find more books I’d like to read, particularly if I venture into a bookstore.
  23. It can be useful to learn to embrace failure, since being okay with it allows you to take bigger risks and accomplish bigger things.
  24. Change takes time.
  25. People are infinitely adaptable.
  26. Seeing life through a lens of gratitude increases levels of happiness.
  27. So do little dogs. Probably also cats.
  28. So does loving yourself.
  29. Time keeps passing. And passing. And passing. No matter what happens or does not happen.
  30. Suffering and adversity can reveal great beauty.

What did you learn in 2012?

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Whatever your feelings might be about Jeff Bezos, according to this article he said something very interesting at a Q&A recently: “He said people who were right a lot of the time were people who often changed their minds. He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait.”

I love this insight because I change my mind all the time, and I think having some mental flexibility is very important. I’m not talking about fickleness here, as in not following through on commitments and responsibilities, or flip-flopping views for convenient or random reasons.

But changing your mind is a very natural thing to do. Perhaps you’ve had more time to think about an issue, or perhaps you’ve become more educated about it. Maybe something else has happened that has changed an issue’s ramifications. Or maybe you simply woke up one day and realized you were incorrect. It happens.

Photo by H. Kopp Delaney

I’m sure I don’t agree with everything I’ve written on this blog anymore, or have developed a more nuanced view. Often when I sit down to write an essay, I am learning and thinking as I type. And then I learn more from any discussion we have together in the comments. And then I think about it for a while. And then maybe I read something else that plays into all of that in some way. I often understand something better as a result of this process.

The problem with not changing our minds is that this rigidity makes it a lot more likely that we’ll get stuck. We’re less likely to think of creative solutions to our problems or different ways of seeing something. We’re more likely to remain ignorant because we don’t always get enough information right away, but if we can’t change our minds later, we’ll be stuck with whatever opinions we formed without sufficient data. We’re less likely to think for ourselves and more likely to hold onto unexamined beliefs that were instilled in childhood.

How can we live examined lives without being willing to change our minds when necessary? How can we really listen to what the people in our lives are telling us if we won’t allow even the possibility that those words will have impact? How can we live in a constantly changing world without allowing our minds to change along with everything else?

Of course, as with everything in life, finding a balance is necessary. In order to embrace the possibility of changing our minds, we have to put in the time and effort required to weigh different viewpoints and incorporate any additional data we may have learned. Sometimes we will come to the conclusion that we don’t need to change our minds, that our viewpoint is still working just fine for us. And sometimes the arguments presented to us don’t merit much (or any) investigation.

But pure long-term consistency of thought can sometimes show a lack of any actual thinking at all. Personally, I’d rather keep exploring, learning, and asking questions. Changing your mind doesn’t have to feel like failure; instead it can be seen as a victory.

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“I aspire to eccentricity,” I said recently at a party. “By the time I reach my sixties, I want to claim it completely. I want to be a full-blown eccentric.”

It takes a special kind of strength to claim our eccentricity, to go against social norms and expectations, to wave the weird flag. There’s a subculture in the US, consisting of artistic types, unconventional types, adventurous types, and free spirits, who consider the statement “You’re weird” to be one of the highest compliments. It’s a reclamation of words that cut to the bone on the elementary school playground.

What’s interesting about being a free spirit, or a rebel, or any of these other labels, is that there isn’t one way to do it. We talked a couple of years ago about Hollywood’s depictions of free spirits as spacy, often irresponsible, Bohemian, manic pixie dream girls. But allowing ourselves to fit into these pre-constructed molds is an inherent act of conformity. In order to truly be a free spirit, to claim that eccentricity within, we do ourselves a disservice if we follow the map society hands us. “Here’s what you’re supposed to be if you’re a free spirit.” Ha! When the whole point is to decide for yourself.

We are held back by these maps, by these preconceptions. The well-honed ability of human beings to practice self-deception will never cease to amaze me. I am so good at it, I don’t even realize I’m doing it. It is only when these maps, these boundaries, and these assumptions are challenged that we can begin to truly cultivate ourselves, eccentricities and all. Otherwise, not only do we limit the choices in our stories to a much more narrow band than necessary, but we fail to know ourselves.

Photo by H Koppdelaney

If we look at what lurks underneath this disconnect, we’ll often find fear. Fear of being different. Fear of not being loved. Fear of change. Fear of loss of safety. Fear of having to confront hard truths, of being stuck into the red hot forge until we become malleable enough to be re-shaped and see more clearly.

In order to know ourselves, in order to discover what shape our eccentricities will take, we have to walk into the fear. We have to gently nudge ourselves forward, and we have to experience the pain that comes with seeing that reality does not always conform with our expectations, our beliefs, and our desires. Claiming eccentricity fully means spending our lives exploring, both what it means to be us and how that intersects with the rest of the world. It means ignoring that innate desire to mirror what and who is around us. It means thinking instead of automatically agreeing. It means creating a ripple of discomfort around ourselves, and perhaps learning to defuse it somewhat with humor, charisma, and tact (and sometimes choosing purposefully to let the discomfort stand). It means choosing how we express ourselves.

What we find when we strip ourselves down, layer by layer, is true eccentricity. A lot of people call this authenticity. I think maybe it’s the same thing, only authenticity sounds more noble. It’s simultaneously a loss of innocence and a rebirth of innocence. Nothing is the way it seemed–not society, not the people we know, not even ourselves. (Get stuck here and you achieve bitterness, disillusionment, cynicism.)

Beyond it, though, lies the innocence of being connected to ourselves in the moment. The innocence of “I am.” The innocence of the joy that is generated by living in harmony with who we are.

I made a joke at a party. But this is really what I meant. There’s something a little eccentric about that, don’t you think?

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